The addition of the NBL Next Stars program in recent seasons has helped represent a massive turning point for the league

19 Apr

The addition of the NBL Next Stars program in recent seasons has helped represent a massive turning point for the league. With the likes of LaMelo Ball, Josh Giddey, Ousmane Dieng and now AJ Johnson passing through the league it has become a genuine destination for young stars with NBA aspirations.

Johnson, who will link up with the Hawks next season, decommitted from an historically strong collegiate program in Texas to link up with Illawarra for NBL24, and current mock drafts have him ranked as the 13th best player in the 2024 NBA Draft.

The 18-year-old compared himself to both Ball and Giddey when his signing was announced and Peter Hooley – who played out his collegiate career with Albany – says Johnson’s decision to come to the NBL is indicative of its quality.

“He had some big offers in terms of potentially going to college and even the G-League Ignite and going that route, and chose to come to the NBL instead,” Hooley said on SEN.

“I love the way he spoke about why he did that and he compared himself a bit in the way LaMelo came out.

“I think he’s a little different with how LaMelo had the fanfare around him and only played 12 games, but really dominated for a bunch of those games to win Rookie of the Year.

“He’s a really exciting prospect and he wants to come and play against men in a professional league.”

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Can AJ Johnson make as big a splash in the NBL as LaMelo Ball and Josh Giddey? ?<br><br>Read more: <a href=""></a> <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; NBL (@NBL) <a href="">April 14, 2023</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

While Giddey and Ball are rightly held up as the two crowning achievements in the Next Stars program’s young history, there is still an extensive list of players who ended up drafted after playing in the NBL – and an extensive list who are still playing in the NBA.

Former New Zealand Breaker RJ Hampton has gone on to become a high-calibre role player at Detroit, while his fellow ex-Breaker Ousmane Dieng made leaps forward in his first season in the NBA.

Hooley says it’s the players who came through the program that aren’t global stars that truly indicate the effectiveness of the NBL as a breeding ground for talent.

“You go back all the way to Terrence Ferguson and Brian Bowen, these guys didn’t put up massive numbers but they just started, played their roles, still got drafted and still ended up on NBA rosters,” he said.

“Really the anomalies are Giddey, [he] had his triple-doubles and had a fantastic season, and LaMelo did as well.

“That’s how recognisable and respected the league is now – you don’t have to come in and average triple-double.

“It will help, but you don’t have to do that to be able to get drafted and start your NBA career.

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